China's 'Lying Flat' movement: Is it time to rethink Singapore's work culture
By Kai Ting, Editor
In March 2021, China unveiled its fourteenth Five-Year Plan that outlined the country’s strategic blueprint for the next half-decade, as well as long-term plans for 2035. Over the next five years, the Chinese leadership pledged a commitment towards systemic resilience - strengthening China’s endogenous capacities, achieving stable social and economic development, and building industries that are insulated from external vulnerabilities . At the same time, the Xi administration aims to secure China’s position as a global industrial powerhouse by achieving self-reliance while reducing its dependence on foreign technology and imports.
However, China’s pursuit for self-sufficiency and economic prosperity has been met with internal resistance among Chinese youths who are disillusioned by deeply ingrained narratives of hard work and struggle propagated by the Chinese Communist Party and bleak prospects in Chinese society. Instead, they opt for ‘lying flat’, or tangping (躺平).
"Lying Flat Movement": Lying Flat is Justice
The buzzword first appeared on the Chinese discussion forum Baidu Tieba in April 2021 where Luo Huazhong, under the pseudonym Kind-Hearted Traveler, described his experiences of living a minimalist lifestyle. In an interview with The New York Times, he shared that he ‘felt numb, like a machine’ after working for a long time . As a result of burnout from overworking, Luo resigned from his factory job and cycled over 2000km from Sichuan to Tibet. During this period, he took up odd jobs along the way and lived on $60 a month.
Titled ‘Lying Flat Is Justice’, the now-deleted post featured a photo of Luo lying on his bed in a dark room with the curtains drawn. Renouncing the pressures of contemporary life, the author concluded that ‘only by lying down can humans become the measure of all things .
Luo’s post was later celebrated as a manifesto against materialism. The idea of ‘lying flat’ as a life philosophy gained momentum among disenchanted middle-class Chinese youths who were frustrated at the hypercompetitive nature of Chinese society that did not promise real advancement in Chinese society.
An example of this hyper-competition can be seen in China’s education system. For Chinese students, the premium placed on good academic results makes it difficult for them to break out of a cycle of competitiveness and stress. Fuelled by helicopter parents who are overly involved in every aspect of their children’s lives, students start preparing for the National College Entrance Examinations (NCEE), commonly known as gaokao (高考), from a young age as these scores are decisive for determining one’s life opportunities and earning potential. This is compounded by the fact that the number of university applicants far exceeds the available places, and acceptance rates into prestigious universities such as Peking University and Nanjing University are exceptionally low.
Once they graduate, students are left jostling in an intensely crowded job market dictated by cutthroat competition. The Chinese College Graduates’ Employment Annual Report published in June 2012 reported that over 570,000 students among 6 million university graduates in 2011 remained unemployed after a year, with over 100,000 being financially dependent on their parents. The addition of 4.8 million fresh graduates in 2012 further contributed to the fast-growing army of unemployed graduates, with recruitment rates for the new batch being as low as 42% . Against a landscape of growing unemployment rates, disenchanted youths no longer believed that they could improve their social status simply by working hard.
The ‘Lying Flat’ movement deeply resonated with Chinese youths who were overwhelmed by the pressures of modern life. In the subsequent weeks, the internet buzzword inspired Internet memes and merchandise such as T-shirts carrying ‘Lie flat, do nothing’ taglines. Before long, stories of Chinese youths embracing anti-materialist lifestyles and doing as little as possible in the face of bleak job prospects became commonplace.
Brutalities of China's '996' Work Culture
The ‘Lying Flat’ movement is not the first protest against a culture of overwork and excessive competition in China. Launched a year before the ‘Lying Flat’ movement, the 996.ICU movement in 2019 rallied tech workers calling for a denunciation of the ‘996’ work culture - working 9 am to 9 pm for six days a week . The name 996.ICU suggested that those who worked in China’s tech industry characterized by a ‘996’ work culture would risk poor health and be sent to the hospital intensive care unit (ICU).
The online campaign elicited widespread support from discontented software developers from over 100 companies, including tech giants such as Alibaba and Baidu, who demanded ethical reforms to corporate culture and management amidst a growing number of employees’ deaths due to work-related stress. Soon after, the movement sparked extensive public debate on China’s labor law, stagnant salary, and career progression, as well as the need for work-life balance in China’s hustle culture.
A Counter-Narrative of the China Dream
While the ‘Lying Flat’ movement has gained popularity among Chinese millennials, it also drew censures from the Chinese Communist Party and various state institutions.
Within a few weeks, the original post by Luo was removed from Baidu Tieba without notice. Among many others, a Douban discussion group named the ‘Lying Down Group’ consisting of over 9000 members were soon deleted . Merchandise related to ‘lying down’ were also pulled from online stores such as Alibaba and Taobao. Soon enough, web service providers were ordered to restrict new posts circulating the neologism, and search functions for ‘lying flat’ or ‘#tangping’ on Chinese sites were disabled.
State-controlled media were also quick to rebut the ‘Lying Flat’ movement. Guangming Daily published an editorial admonishing the mindset for hindering economic and social development . Similarly, an article by Nanfang Daily, another mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, condemned the attitude as ‘not only unjust but also shameful’, equating one’s avoidance of pressure and struggle to a defeatist mindset .
The ‘lying flat’ philosophy worried state authorities, who saw it as a threat to core socialist values promulgated by the Chinese Communist Party. For Chinese officials, this went against what the nation had always wanted of its people - a patriotic and productive workforce. The movement was also seen as a counter-narrative to the normative doctrine that glorified innovation and hard work as key to achieving China’s economic ambitions.
In his New Year’s address in 2018, President Xi endorsed that happiness is achieved through hard work. He went on to highlight that working hard is ‘the most honorable, noblest, greatest and most beautiful virtue’ .
However, Chinese millennials are not convinced. Disenchanted by empty promises of consumerism and the lack of breakthroughs despite one’s hard work, more Chinese youths would rather choose a lifestyle that forgoes sacrifice and the pursuit of material wealth in exchange for catharsis and personal fulfillment.
Work Culture in Singapore
Heated debates over China's ‘Lying Flat’ movement and its notorious ‘996’ overtime practice bring Singapore’s work culture into question. Are employees in Singapore overworked, stressed, and exhausted? And if so, why?
Similar to China, working professionals in Singapore face long working hours. In 2008, estimates showed that the average Singaporean worked a total of 46.3 hours a week, exceeding the official limit of 44 working hours a week under the Singapore Employment Act.  Despite statistics from the Ministry of Manpower that reported a steady decline in working hours from 2010, Singapore residents continue to work the second-longest week in developed cities around the world, clocking in 45.6 hours a week in 2015 .
The blurring of Work-Life Distinctions During COVID-19
After the COVID-19 outbreak, Singapore introduced safe management measures such as having more people working from home to safeguard public health and well-being. While commuting time and transportation costs have been saved, the default ‘work-from-home arrangement has also led to a multitude of problems - space constraints, struggle to balance work, life, and family.
Boundaries between work time and personal time are not clearly established, as employees are expected to be available at all times since work was done digitally and remotely. In times of crisis, ideologies of pragmatism that prioritize economic growth and development have resulted in a normalization of long working hours.
The Global Work-Life Balance Index 2021 by tech company Kisi reported that Singapore was the second most overworked city among 50 global cities such as Hong Kong, Seoul, and Tokyo. In the same study, Singapore has ranked among the bottom 10 cities in terms of work-life balance, placing 41 out of the 50 cities surveyed.  Exacerbated by the economic downturn following the COVID-19 outbreak, it seems that a harmonious balance between life and work becomes a luxury not everyone can afford.
According to the Conditions of Employment Report in 2019, 87 percent of employees were offered at least one flexible work arrangement, such as part-time work, flexible hours or teleworking, up from 81 percent in 2017.  In 2020, it was reported that 8 out of 10 workers in Singapore prefer to work from home and have flexible work arrangements.  These have put a spotlight on the value of work-life harmony, with many Singaporeans recognizing the need for more supportive workplace cultures such as the introduction of flexible working arrangements and better leave systems as remote working becomes the default for most employees.
Explaining Muted Responses Towards Work-Life Balance in Singapore
The normalcy of a hypercompetitive Singapore society can be traced back to entrenched cultural mindsets since Singapore’s independence in the 1960s, which emphasized hard work and sacrifice in exchange for rewards such as financial stability. With limited natural resources, Singapore had to build its human capital through a rigorous education system focused on the transmission of technical skills for a literate, productive, and technically trained workforce to achieve economic rejuvenation. 
With the introduction of a New Education System (NES) in 1979, students were allocated into different streams depending on their pace of learning and were encouraged to progress as far as they could in school to achieve the ‘best possible educational take-off for training and employment.  This system seemingly replicates a Darwinian system that views an individual’s educational credentials as mechanisms to organize individuals in society based on their perceived value and contributions.
Notwithstanding reforms and debates about the need to deviate from current definitions of successes which place heavy emphasis on academic achievements, many individuals today continue to engage in the paper chase, believing that a university degree guarantees career and social advancement. This is exacerbated by the fact employers and hiring personnel continues to select potential employees based on their formal educational credentials, which are tied to meanings of competence, productivity, hard work, and knowledge – values that are highly sought after in the job market. On the other hand, for parents and students, these qualifications are viewed as a social leveler, and a ticket to a life of comfort and stability.
Apart from ingrained cultural mindsets that justify the hypercompetitive nature of contemporary Singapore society, muted responses towards work-life balance against a culture of overwork can be attributed to existing laws such as the Public Order Act, which regulates public assemblies and public processions in Singapore.  In accordance with the Public Order Act, a permit is needed before these activities may be conducted in public places.  While the Speakers’ Corner is an ‘unrestricted area’ designated for Singaporeans to express themselves in various ways, including delivering public speeches and holding peaceful demonstrations, these can only be done after an application is filed to the National Parks Board, a statutory board under the Ministry of National Development.  Furthermore, participation is stigmatized as public assemblies are often subjected to police surveillance and the extensive use of CCTV cameras even after they have been approved.
Failure to comply with detailed conditions on what can be said and who can participate frequently results in criminal investigations and charges, or civil defamation suits and crippling damages. Hence, the pervasive fear that state authorities will retaliate in some way, coupled with restrictions to the right to peaceful assembly, result in self-censorship for many Singaporeans.
Implications on Mental Health, Family Planning and Ageing
Singapore’s workaholic culture and the inability to achieve a harmonious balance between work and life have extensive implications on the population in terms of mental health and family planning.
A recent study by Sleepseeker in 2021 puts Singapore as the most fatigued nation in the world.  Similar studies have also highlighted the increased incidences of stress, burnout, and anxiety among employees in recent years. These can be attributed to the blurring of work-life boundaries and job insecurity due to COVID-19. Unexpectedly, Singaporeans are also among the most sleep-deprived workers in the world.
An aging population and low fertility rate in Singapore are also integral to the discussion of achieving work-life balance. It is projected that by 2030, one in four Singaporeans will be aged 65 years and above.  A greying population often referred to as a ‘demographic time bomb’, will pose serious challenges to Singapore. The growing old-age dependency ratio leaves a significant proportion of younger workers who have to juggle between working and taking care of their aging parents. Furthermore, increased government spending on healthcare and social services to support the older generation will translate into a higher tax burden on a shrinking workforce. Hence, the younger generation will find themselves working longer hours to alleviate their growing financial strain.
Women in Singapore also face a dilemma. More women in Singapore, especially if they are more educated, are now choosing to remain single or have fewer children. The average number of children born per woman aged 40 to 49 years fell from 2.02 in 2010 to 1.76 in 2020. Among them, those who do not have children from 13.5% in 2020.  Long working hours are often cited as a factor that influences family planning, with many women foreseeing difficulties in balancing work and family responsibilities. On a macro scale, this has led to declining fertility rates in Singapore, with a total fertility rate falling to a historic low of 1.1 births per woman in 2020. 
Collectively, it is evident that Singapore’s work culture and the dichotomy of work-life balance will have implications on the replacement rate and productivity of a young workforce in the long run.
What Has Been Done?
Over the last two years, measures have been introduced by the government in recognition of the pressures brought about by COVID-19, and the importance of safeguarding employees’ mental well-being during times of change disruption.
The Tripartite Advisory on Mental Well-being at Workplace jointly released by the Ministry of Manpower, National Trades Union Congress, and the Singapore National Employers Federation outlined measures that employers can adopt to support their employees’ mental well-being.  The recommendations include the provision of counseling services where employees can consult a professional on their work and non-work-related challenges. In addition, companies are encouraged to extend employees flexible benefits to cover mental health-related consultations and treatments and establish a work-life harmony policy to provide clarity on after-hours work communication.
Focusing on the development of a national overarching mental health and well-being strategy, Singapore convened the COVID-19 Mental Wellness Taskforce (CoMWT) in 2020 to address unprecedented changes in daily routines, economic uncertainty, and social isolation brought about by safe management measures. 
In the same year, Mr. Melvin Yong, Member of Parliament (MP) for Radin Mas SMC, also proposed the implementation of a “Right to Disconnect” legislation to help improve the well-being of employees in Singapore.  The law, which was first enacted in France in 2017, called on companies to regulate the use of electronic devices for work so that employees have protected time for themselves. With workers in France forbidden from sending or replying to emails after regular working hours, this is seen as a baby step to reduce the risk of workplace burnout.
The Road Ahead
While non-governmental organizations such as MARUAH call for the upholding of labor rights in Singapore,  the top-down approach to policy decisions in Singapore brings into question whether attempts at state-society dialogues would actually make any significant changes to the landscape and policies meant to safeguard employees' well-being.
Looking forward, what else can be done to address Singapore’s workaholic culture?
First, employers should look into the implementation of work-life balance policies such as flexible working arrangements and additional leave schemes beyond what is mandated by law. In addition, policymakers should ensure compliance with existing legal frameworks for facilitating work-life balance in Singapore and facilitate the implementation of new policies.
Most companies in Singapore typically offer 14 to 21 days of annual leave, along with other leave types such as compassionate and childcare leaves.  However, firms such as Deloitte and Facebook have gone beyond mandated time-off policies for their employees. At Facebook, employees get two Choice Days on top of 20 days of annual leave. They are able to take time off to volunteer, celebrate a faith-based or community event or use it as a free day.  In 2020, Facebook employees were entitled to three additional company-wide days off to rest and recharge. Moving forward, more companies can consider the adoption of more flexible time-off policies to show more support for their employees.
In Ireland, companies are trailing a four-day working week under a six-month pilot program driven by the Four Day Week Ireland campaign.  Advocating for a shorter work week with no loss of pay, the movement champions the importance of family time, leisure time, and community work, and advocates that these will not come at the expense of work productivity.
The idea of a four-day workweek was also proposed by the Workers’ Party MP for Sengkang GRC Mr Louis Chua who emphasized that a shorter workweek will not only increase productivity but also encourage workers to become ‘fuller’ people outside of their jobs.  Amidst a shifting work culture, the adoption of a shorter workweek can potentially address poor mental health among employees, and an increased occurrence of presenteeism in Singapore - lost productivity when employees show up for work despite feeling unwell, tired, or distracted. Subsequently, these benefits can translate to society-wide benefits such as economic growth and development.
Employers can also consider employment support schemes to motivate employees at their workplace and help workers manage their responsibilities outside of work. These might include health-related benefits such as subsidized health screenings, eldercare sick leave as well as initiating recreational activities to build employer-employee relations and boost morale.
Second, we need to rethink traditional definitions of success to go beyond material betterment such as monetary gains and house purchases to recognize the less tangible things such as better mental health and personal satisfaction. Guided by the notion of meritocracy that forms the core of national narratives in Singapore, many Singaporeans believe that hard work and effort guarantees success, which often comes in the form of monetary gains and increased purchasing power to better prepare individuals for their future. However, such a mentality discretely equates life to a zero-sum game and leaves intangible aspects such as one’s well-being out of the equation.
Singapore leaders have long emphasized the need to build our human capital to remain competitive in the global landscape as we possess limited natural resources. However, we need to ensure that ambitions of national progress do not come at the expense of personal well-being. The case study of China suggests that the disenchantment of youths is an issue that goes beyond career progression and an oversaturated job market.
Instead, holistic solutions are needed across a multitude of issues - ensuring more affordable housing options, addressing social inequality, and providing stronger mental health support. These must be coupled with cultural shifts from success-oriented mindsets and challenges to long-standing narratives of hard work and sacrifice. Only then will we be able to build our human capital to its fullest potential without exhausting it.
Kai Ting is a Year 2 Political Science student and an Editor for The Convergence. She has a keen interest in socio-political affairs and inequality in the region, in particular social welfare development in Hong Kong and Korea. By introducing new perspectives to societal issues, she hopes that her writing can drive more active participation and robust discussions among individuals. When she is not pouring through her readings, she is probably exploring new cafe hideouts and hiking spots. Some of her other interests include film photography, nature walks and reading non-fiction titles.